Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Hrusa @ Barbican Hall, London

28 November 2008

There are fewer greater musical pleasures than hearing one of the warhorses of the choral repertoire freshly-minted.

So forget ‘Old Spice’ and ‘The Omen’ as the BBCSO’s earth-shattering performance under the baton of Jakub Hrusa of Carmina Burana was the real McCoy.

The first half of the programme was devoted to two works, the UK premiere of Svatopluk Havelka’s Hommage Hieronymus Bosch, and Hindemith’s Symphonic metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The former had some interesting orchestral colour but was a bit too ‘Tom and Jerry’, whilst the Hindemith failed to move, despite being given a no-holds barred performance by the orchestra.

Familiarity can breed contempt, especially in the world of classical music. There can be a tendency for audiences and critics alike to think that they don’t need to attend yet another performance of X, Y or Z, because they know it inside out and that it’s been done to death so many times. And no work has suffered more, or tends to carry as much musical baggage, as poor old Carmina Burana.


Play the hushed incantations of the opening choral number to anyone and their eyes tend to light up as they recognise the ‘Old Spice’ ad or maybe snippets from ‘The Omen’. But Carl Orff’s choral masterpiece is far, far more than that, especially when given such a memorable performance as here. Indeed I can’t actually remember when I last heard it in the concert hall, and despite being of the opinion that I knew the work inside out, I was taken aback by the originality, pulsating power and overwhelming impact that the score can have.

Architect of the whole success was young Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa who, on the basis of this performance alone, has a glittering conducting career ahead of him. Not only did he marshal the huge forces with apparent ease, he also drew incandescent playing from the orchestra and thrilling singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus, and Trinity Boys Choir. Some of his tempi verged on the extreme but this only added to the visceral power of the performance.

It helped that he had three soloists whom it is impossible to imagine bettered. William Dazeley gave a swaggering performance and used his opulent baritone voice to telling effect, especially when under Bacchus’ influence. As the spit-roast swan John Graham-Hall used his wealth of stage experience to transform his brief charcoal-singed appearance into a mini-operatic performance whilst soprano Sally Matthews soared ecstatically into the soprano-stratosphere, her ‘Dulcissime! Ah! Totam tibi subdo me!’ (‘Sweetest one! Ah! I give myself to you totally!’) was almost indecent in its erotic charge.

All in all as thrilling a performance of this marvellous work as you’re likely to hear. And because of the wonders of modern technology you can now watch it on the BBCSO website as well as listen to it, thanks to the fixed cameras in the Barbican Hall.

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